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Diet Coke Turns 30: A low-calorie history of aspartame and advertising


It's a truth we all know but refuse to accept: Diet Coke is probably just as shitty for you as regular old Coca Cola. But, it just turned 30 the other day, so we'll try to stay objective.

Diet Coke, as anyone wearing a sweatband and chugging the latest protein shake (packed with more additives than you can count) will reluctantly admit, is packed with aspartame. This blend of aspartic acid and phenylalanine--originally concocted in the search for an anti-ulcer drug--is a little piece of chemical evil, hell-bent on deteriorating our bodies, masquerading as a faux sweetener.

Aspartame has been a source of controversy in the nutrition world since its accidental conception in 1965 by chemist James M. Schlatter, but remains a fundamental building block of the second most popular soft drink in the nation. Despite its potentially cancerous contents, (it has been linked to cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, but without definitive proof) Diet Coke has secured itself a spot in soft drink history, right behind full-calorie classic Coke, and selling nearly 927 million cases in 2010.

After distinguishing itself from Coca Cola's inaugural diet soda, TaB, Diet Coke became the face of a new era in soda marketing strategies. As the first new brand to use the Coca Cola trademark since 1886, Diet Coke tripped a few times on the road to advertising glory--remember Paula Abdul dancing around with dead celebrities? In 1983, they hit gold: Coca Cola purchased Columbia Pictures and kick-started a tricky little technique called product placement. The celebrity-driven love affair with aspartame was so strong that in 1988, Diet Coke nearly became the drink of choice at the Governor's Ball following the Oscars-only be trumped last minute by alcohol.

These days, Diet Coke has garnered an iconic status in American culture. It has the presidential seal of approval from both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. There's an entire Tumblr dedicated to celebrities drinking Diet Coke. Though the controversy of aspartame has been well-documented, it seems that the word "Diet" stamped on the label never ceases to convince consumers they're doing well by their bodies by chugging it down.

So, happy birthday, you sneaky bastard! We'll probably keep drinking you, against our better judgment. And, because not every Coca-Cola is created equally, let's take a quick moment to mourn those sodas that fell by the wayside:

New Coke/ Coca-Cola II: A marketing disaster. The company said that "To hear some tell it, April 23, 1985 was a day that will live in marketing infamy...spawning consumer angst the likes of which no business has ever seen."

Coca-Cola Blak: The coffee-flavored soft drink only lasted from 2006-2008.

Diet Coke sweetened with Splenda: Created under the pressure of Walmart, but not much went into marketing, so distribution trickled away relatively quickly.


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